Garden of Eatin’
Rio Grill’s new look, debut foodie video, and the two biggest events of the year.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
There is evidence that Rio Grill Exec Chef Cy Yontz is a bad-ass. There are the tattoos, the towering presence, the steely gaze and the fact that, when asked what three things he would take on a desert island, he doesn’t hesitate long, or include a Japanese mandolin on the list.
“A bottle of tequila and two pigs,” he says. “I could live off bacon.”
Evidence of both said badassness and his penchant for pork exists simultaneously in his shanks. The “crispy pork shanks” ($19.99) undergo a journey that includes searing, duck fat soaking, forever-and-then-some slow roasting, a flash deep fry, electric green chile-tomatillo sauce and dining ecstasy.
That voyage is captured on the food blog as part of a new video series by my colleague Joel Ede and me called “In Your Dish” (along with a look at the duck breast one local critic calls “the best on the Peninsula”). In coming weeks and months, look for more chef-centric portraits of the places you adore.
Meanwhile Rio Grill (625-5436) itself, reigning Best Restaurant More Than 10 Years Old (before Fandango displaced them today, see p. 40), is also embarking on a journey, one paralleling the one its younger sibling standout restaurant Montrio undertook last summer.
The bar’s getting a major facelift and turning toward craftier cocktails starring agave syrups and pickled goodies from Yontz, while its caricatures on the walls are swelling in character and number.
Owner Tony Tollner, GM Joe Valencia and Yontz are also evaluating and updating china, flatware and decor – and giddy about the debut of their new Santa Fe room, which will wield huge possibilities for tastings, private parties and other special events.
The tastiest change, though, is that Yontz – who learned the southwestern art of food beside Mark Miller at Santa Fe’s landmark Coyote Cafe and has only honed it further here – is seizing a chance to claim greater creative control of the menu, which he says will see a fresh 50 percent shift. (Fear not, Rio freaks, the Chinese chicken salad and smoked chicken will stay.)
Change, as Yontz assured us, is good. I need only look at the elements that accompany the duck – a duck confit tamale and squash chilequiles – to commence dreaming what he’ll conjure next.
The yum comes in just more than a month: The grand re-opening is scheduled for April 20, in concert with Rio’s 27th anniversary. And, even as they ready for the remarkable makeover, lots is currently cooking. The 3-6pm Monday-Friday happy hour continues to be one of the best in town ($3 drafts, well drinks and house wines with half price apps like buffalo carpaccio and New Mexican chile onion rings), and new nighttime bartender Eli Severson is inventing elixirs like the “Pale Moon,” a earthy, fresh and flavorful blend of Absolut Wild Tea, lavender, lemon juice, and honey plus maraschino and créme de violette liqueurs and “El Fuego” martini with muddled jalapeño, cilantro and lime with Ketel One and Cointreau (they sold 25 Saturday).
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It’s a unique challenge in the culinary kingdom: Do something bigger and better than six days of insane events, dozens all told, that range from a Wednesday founders meeting – with some guy named Thomas Keller cooking and six digits worth of wine (and several billionaires) – to a Sunday grand tasting with 200 wineries and 20 Michel Richards and Ming Tsais.
That challenge is Coastal Luxury Management’s charge at the moment, their annual affliction and benediction. While the group’s Cannery Row Brewing Company earned Best New Restaurant in this issue (p. 43), PBF&W remains the flagship, steaming ahead in year four with only another heaping serving of ambitious indugence, a year after the demos got a big boost from expanded tents and the afterparties simply blew up in their own massive tent off of Spanish Bay’s bustling ballrooms.
Thirteen different dinners is something to gawk at when there are lunches as big, bad and bold as the $200 “Don’t Mess With Texas” pulling five of Texas’ best chefs to pair with Penfolds’ nicest wines and Pebble Beach Lodge. This year’s $500 “Delicacy Dinner,” for instance, brings together Joachim Splichal (Patina Restaurant Group), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s), Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison) and Gale Gand (TRU) with seven wineries like Veuve Clicquot, Hundred Acre and Rubicon.
Demos by Jacques Pepin, Tyler Florence and Tom Colicchio, who is also the focus of a special tribute “10 Years of Craft” dinner – represent sure-fire sell-outs, and the Grand Tastings remain a spectacle unparalleled west of Aspen: You can’t chew twice without stumbling over several Masaharu Morimotos, Tim Loves or Michael Symons or a tiny-production, huge-reputation winemaker. The key is to keep moving, but there are so many tastes and personalities and talents that pull you in that the key is swallowed along with the lobster cones and truffle terra cotta.
Check out the blog for video of appropriately ascotted CLM mouthpiece David Bernahl unspooling his highlights heading in – he seems most excited about a “Blues, Booze and BBQ” piece – and a look at the shiny new CLM corporate headquarters above CRBC.
April 28 will be here before we know it: 1-866-907-FOOD or www.pebblebeachfoodandwine.com.
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“Spiritual experience” is right.
Only Cooking for Solutions chief Ginger Hopkins wasn’t talking about the incredible fennel soup, saffron toast or fresh crab louie tasters Portola Restaurant Chef Jeff Rogers just laid on us – or the signature dishes from new Aquarium culinary partner Cindy Pawlcyn to come, including Mighty Meatloaf with horseradish barbecue sauce ($19), an orange cilantro chicken breast tostada ($16) and a lemon buttermilk pudding cake ($8).
She was talking about the power CFS can have on its attendees, the very power they have arranged to amplify for the 10th Cooking for Solutions May 20-22.
This member of the congregation can bear witness. It was here where I first understood how obsessive past honored chef Thomas Keller is about sourcing (“If I can get better ingredients than you,” he told me, “I’m a better chef than you”), how this year’s Chef of the Year Rick Moonen turned the tide on swordfish overfishing and affected the ape-sh*t consumerism in Vegas, and what futurist Paul Hawken feels foodies can do to save our crippled planet (“Tastebuds are a teacher, a kindness, a guide. They guided us here today,” he said. “They can heal us, heal the earth, heal how we farm”).
This year Hopkins and company have added capacity, chefs and wines to the gala – right to the delicious cusp of sustainable taste overload – and stacked a lineup of celebrated chefs and guests long enough to make the Food Network emolsify in envy: Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Alton Brown, P. Allen Smith, Guy Fieri, Carla Hall, Charles Phan, Sam Choy, Chris Cosentino, John Ash and Jesse Ziff Cool among them.
To capitalize on that caliber, there are more intimate food and wine adventures than ever, in which, say, 20 uber-lucky Phan fans join Charles (of Slanted Door) on a Santa Lucia adventure that includes ATVs, Hahn wines, a demo and lunch. “People come back from the food and wine adventures,” Hopkins says, “and say, ‘It’s life-changing.’”
The “salon series” talks – like Seafood in Season with Rogers and Sustainable Sushi with Bamboo Sushi’s Brandon Hill – have been similarly expanded, as have the pavilion presentations with folks like Fieri and Brown sharing sly tips and clever quips.
It’s the communion of those chefs, interestingly, that contains potential that goes beyond educating eaters on healthy-planet eating habits, Hopkins adds.
“I love seeing them at the [private] closing dinner,” she says. “Celebrity chefs, regional stars and our local chefs talking about what they – and we – can do together.”
Learn more at 866-963-9645 or www.cookingforsolutions.org.
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Stinging nettle soup with braised snails. Poached river crayfish with bay laurel leaves and morel mushrooms. Smoked wild eel with chanterelles. Wild fennel-Douglas fir focaccia. Oak bark ice cream (really). I could fill this page trying to describe the tastes from Saturday’s Edible from the Wild lunch at Bernardus (658-3400) and still not do it justice. The good news: menu items like those will rotate through the Wickets and Marinus menus, and Chef Cal Stamenov says the talk-lunch is the first in a series… I would drink Carmel Valley Brewing Company (659-4341) beer if it tasted like fish sauce, because, as I learned at the local American Institute of Wine and Food’s St. Paddy’s Day party, it’s brewed in a barn about a mile from where I grew up scooping crawdads out of Carmel Valley River – by two earnest and kind folks in Dean Hatfield and Karolyn King. Fortunately, their flagship IPA is deliciously full, not too hoppy and even a little floral (though the blonde is flat), and available at a bunch of local outposts including Neilsen Brothers, Carmel Valley Market, 211 Bistro, Wills Fargo and many more… Great Taste of Pacific Grove is coming up Sunday, March 27, at Spanish Bay. Tasty Solutions’ Marc Jones has already aligned 19 restaurants like Christopher’s, Peppers and Vivolo’s and is pairing them with winemakers so “the dishes will already be married.” The $50 goes to P.G. schools. 642-4943… Zeph’s (757-3947) has a fun tasting lined up for Thursday, March 24, with 15-20 beers to taste and snacks from Portabello’s for just $15 in advance… Wine Down Wednesdays flow on at Tarpy’s Roadhouse (647-1444), where the featured winery offers tastes, half-price by-the-glass and by-the-bottle and there’s a discounted three-course prix-fixe menu designed to complement the week’s featured wine. Bernardus is March 23, Rodney Strong March 30, Joullian April 6, Talbott Wines April 13, De Tierra April 20… Happy St. Paddy’s everybody. My blood’s an eighth Irish, but my heart is 100 percent pure. May the road (and a nice pint) rise to meet you… “If you’re lucky enough to be Irish,” the saying goes, “then you’re lucky enough.”